Minds Like These

January 24, 2018:

Phil Coulson and Sharon Carter meet up to discuss the latest mission, family matters, and Taco Tuesday.

Stark Industries, NYC

It's a mess.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Sally Stojespal, Sloane Albright, Michael Carter

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Phil Coulson does not have any kids.

Yet for some reason, he owns a World's Greatest Dad cup.

With the blackout resolved he's nevertheless at a command station in Stark Towers; he's not keen on just parking in the Triscut just yet. This command station is actually just a conference room he's taken over now that one is warm and dry and available, with a bunch of computers strung together doing their thing independent of Stark or anybody else's network. They are as offline as they get, but they're capable of running some decent programs all the same, and he's got them chugging away.

He'd also shot Sharon a call to swing by and come see him when she had a moment, that they had things he wanted to discuss and that he'd try not to take too much of her time with them.

Dressed in a blue button up shirt, with the first several unbuttoned, and a navy blue suit jacket and slacks, he is projecting the slightly rumpled air of a low-level functionary instead of the high-ranking agent he really is. This might be because he has some deep strategic reason, it might be because he's been up for 16 hours, or it might be because he's in a state of deep mourning for all the fried electrical systems on Lola, who is still parked up on the landing pad, unmoving and silent.

Maybe a little from all these important columns.

It's been an Exciting time for SHIELD lately, what with evil magic viruses eating Stark's tech. Also, Taco Tuesday didn't happen and the building is entirely out of French vanilla creamer, so the interns are grumbling about revolt.

Sharon has been somewhat enjoying working in a building with electricity AND permanent walls, which is a bit of a departure from the last week. She certainly doesn't resent being called back down to Stark Tower, particularly given who's doing the calling. Coulson is one of the most reliable and unexpectedly-excellent agents she knows, and she's always been comfortable taking orders from him.

So here she is, besuited and tidily coiffed—more so than Phil, whose exhaustion is gleaming from every pore. Sharon gives the open door a perfunctory knock before stepping in, offering Phil a pleasant smile.

"Holding down the fort?" she inquires.

"Always. Close the door, would you?"

Assuming she does, he waves her to a seat. "First, I wanted to commend you. It's been awhile since I've seen you in the field, Agent Carter. I had forgotten how incredible you were, or you've just improved past remembrance. Either way…I'm going to get down to this and ask if you're willing to be my XO on a more or less permanent basis? May is busy running WAND, and our command styles seem to click well. So. If you accept— welcome to Level 7, Agent."

He gives her one of his Cheshire Cat smiles, the one that says he rather doubts he's about to be turned down, the one he often wears when he's feeling somewhat mischevious. He enjoys, sometimes, just dropping stuff like this on people. It's one of the perks of the job.

She does as asked, closing the door and settling herself in one of the chairs. It's a good thing she does, because she definitely would have wanted to be sitting down for news like that.

Wide blue eyes get wider. The famed composure of Agent 13 is shaken just a bit by this; it's more than she hoped, let alone expected, and it takes her a moment to gather herself and give the man a decent answer.

"I—of course I accept. It's an honor, sir." That's all she had to say, but she feels a bit compelled to go on: "I've been impressed with the way you work, too. A lot of agents see themselves as islands; you don't. I'd be honored to work with someone who understands team cohesion as well as you do."

"I'm really sad we didn't get to do Taco Tuesday this week."

The mild quip may even be true. For one thing, Taco Tuesday is one of the few times Phil reliably eats.

But then he folds his hands and says, "There are a few organizational issues I'll fill you in on before you leave today, but before I do…I think there is a family matter or two I should discuss with you." He tilts his head.

"First, you know you've essentially got…two Aunt Peggy's running around right? Well. One considerably younger time travel Aunt serving as an Agent, and one considerably older one that you grew up with all your life?"

Whenever someone comes in from a long stint in the field there are always bits and bobs to get out there. Like by the way, your Aunt time travelled and now looks your age. Just in case Sharon didn't know.

"Everyone's very sorry about Taco Tuesday. Including Agent Lord. It was his responsibility, but the usual taco place was still closed from the power outage and nowhere else would make two hundred tacos on no notice. It won't happen again." Sharon smiles faintly, adding: "The vanilla creamer situation will also be handled by the end of the week. I had a word with Michelle." Michelle is the New York branch manager, effectively. She doesn't manage the employees; she manages the building. The employees live in love and fear of the five-foot-tall equestrian in her fifties. She was never an agentalways agent supportbut she seems to know more about everyone and everything than anyone else. Also, the facts haven't stopped other agents from wondering whether she was secretly an agent injured in the line of duty and set to guard the Triskelion. Some people have active imaginations.

She listens to the rest with some baffled interest, almost wincing at the mention of Peggy. "That's my understanding. The time-shifted Peggy Carter and I haven't really interacted. It's a little odd, sir. She's not the Aunt Peggy I grew up with. If I could wish my aunt young and strong again, I would in a heartbeat, but it's… not quite the same thing. But Peggy's a legend in SHIELD. We're incredibly lucky to have her again."

See? Good XO material.

On the matter of Peggy, a smile touches Phil's lips, he feels the same way. But he doesn't linger on Peggy long. He has another bomb to drop.

"You know, of course, that Peggy had an older brother, Michael, who was presumed dead for a very long time, practically before World War II was even over." He takes a long sip of his coffee, watching her, laying this out very gently. In some ways he's surprised Peggy didn't kick down his office door and give him what-for over the way he handled the revelation of this factoid to her, namely by letting Michael show up and tell her himself.

But this is a trifle different.

"Of course. She adored Michael, talked about him a bit when I was growing up. The whole family revered him as one of the Carter heroes." Stories get bigger the further away they are, of course, which ensured that Michael was, as far as the family was concerned, the greatest of Carter heroes. Peggy was beloved, but she was also the one in the middle of the 1987 Pudding Fracas.

Sharon hesitates. "…He didn't come forward in time too, did he?" Two timeshifted relatives is more than she expected. One, for that matter, was.

"Not exactly. He was never dead. He was part of an MI6 super soldier program. They brought him in and out of staisis over the decades, sent him on multiple missions, kept him a big, classified, top secret thing. But he is here. In New York City. Recently disavowed. And unless I miss my guess, probably not in teriffic mental shape. I don't know what you want to do with that information, but he is staying in a SHIELD safehouse now, courtesy of an old friend of his. I'm sure he imagines I have forgotten about him, or didn't think about my noticing at all."

Phil spreads his hands. "I don't imagine it would be the easiest reunion ever, I'm sure it would be awkward, but I thought you might wish to see him. It might even do him some good. His most recent mission was…" How to describe it.

"A cluster of ducks," is what he decides on.

There's a secret quiet part of Sharon Carter that can't help itself. Part of her brain is seized up with surprise, but there's an autopilot that manages: "The word for multiple birds is a 'flock', sir. What you're saying, I suppose, is that his most recent mission got flocked up."

It's minds like these that keep us safe at night.

"Can you tell me anything about what happened?" Sharon frowns a little at Coulson. It's impossible to read his face. It's one reason he's such a good agent. But it seems like there's something else going on here. "And how many of the Peggys know? I. Of course I'd like to see him, but I never knew him."

"Peggy the Younger does. I don't think Peggy the Elder does," Coulson murmurs, even as his lips twitch appreciatively for the flocked up joke.

"He went on a mission to get an asset out of Norway. He was betrayed and shot multiple times. Someone in MI6 contacted Peggy the Younger and— some PI he was dating briefly— and they went and got him out of there. He was in SHIELD's care. He looks rough; a lot of his physiology is very unique and a lot of it had to be…gotten around in order to treat him successfully. He's also having some anger issues. He smashed up his hospital room on the way out the door."

Phil exhales and says, "I'd like to get him into our fold. When he's stable, and when I won't piss off MI6 by trying it. For now, we're pushing our luck as it is, sheltering him. It was a full disavowal job, right down to the frozen accounts."

Which makes sense as to why Phil would be sending Sharon to bond with the grandfather she never knew. Sharon bites her lips momentarily, glancing away to the window and nodding once.

"I will definitely go and see him. He's going to need some kind of anchor to the present, and Peggy the Younger is maybe not entirely that. MI6 did this?" But it doesn't surprise her all that much. When it comes right down to it, most of the agencies do terrible things like this. It's just that they generally do it for kinder reasons than, say, HYDRA.

"At the moment," she muses, "his friends and family are taking him in. That's nothing MI6 can get too officially upset about, even if we are with SHIELD."

"Exactly," Phil says, with a smile and a hitch of his shoulder.

He also, as it happens, cares about Michael. But it's true that there's almost always both a strategic reason and a giving a care reason for things he does. He doesn't see them as mutually exclusive most of the time. And he is well aware Peggy the Younger maybe can't do it at all.

"They had to, sadly. They were operating in Norway without sanction, because they were trying to keep an asset from going to Russia. It was a complicated mess . Norway is an ally. It's not how I'd have chosen to do business. I'd have found a way to make sure the target was sent out of allied territory and I'd have had him picked up there, but they went straight shot and they lost a good asset because of it. They lost a good man because of it, I should say."

Phil stands up to make more coffee. Or rather, what he does is pour a metric boatload of cream and sugar into the cup, which is therupon blessed with just enough coffee to turn it a pleasant shade of light brown.

Sharon shakes her head slightly. "I'd say hindsight's 20/20, but I'm with you on that. I'm rarely in so much of a hurry that I can't at least make contact with someone on the other side and let them know what's going on. Unless they were concerned about compromising their asset. And even then."

She lets out a tight breath through her nose and shakes her head again, rising to join Phil in a cup of coffee-flavored cream. She also makes a mental note of the color of Phil's coffee. Things that are important for an XO to know definitely include how the bossman takes his cup.

"Yeah. I don't know why they didn't just talk to the Norweigian government and have them send one of their own agents if it was that important," Phil agrees, grimacing. "Usually MI6 is not that sloppy. And then whomever tipped them off goes and gets a civilian involved. It's madness, but here we are. It's madness that has us a Michael Carter very much at loose ends and very much in bad shape. I haven't been to see him, he would…"

Phil gives a tired, amused smile. "Let's just say he doesn't believe I make house calls for no good reason, and that's only because he's probably right. And you know. Demons, blackouts, various and sundry robot attacks. All of that has sort of put your relative on my back burner."

At any rate, it is in her hands now.

He then holds out a thumb drive. In the shape of a rubber ducky. Because. Thumb drives. In the shape of rubber duckies.

"Review that only on a secure offline computer," he tells her. "You'll see why, when you do."

He's found various ways of figuring out who to trust, slowly ruling out agent after agent for various reasons as he conducts his molehunt. This is not the place to do a talkative briefing about such things, but his XO will get the flocking details on a cluster of duck files.

Sharon twiddles the duckie in her hand and smiles before tucking it into her shoulderbag. "Don't plug it in at the public library. Got it." But she does get it. And with instructions like that, it gives her an idea of what might be on the drive.

She's still thinking about that screwed up op, though. They say you should never assume malice when the answer can easily be stupidity, but that isn't always the case when dealing with tradecraft.

"I'm going to be visiting him as family, not as SHIELD. But I'll keep in mind how much of an asset he would be. Not asset as in 'asset', but. You know what I mean."

She takes a gulp of coffee and inclines her head to Phil: "Any other news? Is Agent Stojespal doing all right? And Stark, for that matter?"

"Sally will bounce back," Phil says, with full confidence. "I'd like you to do whatever you can to foster her own leadership potential. That kid has the goods."

But on the matter of Stark, he is silent for a long time. He sits back down, the only real evidence of how troubled he really is showing in the crinkles that settle in around his hazel eyes. They are a dark shade of blue at the moment, reflecting his shirt and maybe even his mood. At last he says, "I should probably go and spend more time with Tony. It might be more important than anything I'm doing in here, come to think of it. It's not his bodily state. He'll be fine in that regard."

He frowns for real. "It's where his head's at. Can you get someone in here to be point of contact? All I'm really doing is babysitting routine analysis programs while making sure Someone In Charge is available, and now that you mention him…"

"Sally's a trouper. I was incredibly impressed with her on this last little mission. If she's not already on your team or your shortlist, she should be." Sharon's not thoroughly sure who's on Team Coulson these days. She's looking forward to finding out. Generally, she finds that she agrees with his assessments.

Her expression grows more sober when she sees Coulson's reaction to the mention of Stark's name. She stares down into her coffee—she can feel it, absolutely. Stark must feel tremendously guilty about the havoc his tech wreaked, even if it wasn't exactly his fault. For all that he comes across as an irresponsible bon vivant, she's never known someone so prone to beating himself up and blaming himself.

"Absolutely. I can come up with a list of names, or I can just pick someone. Up to you. I'll have the list to you by the end of the day. Stark… he's going to need help working through this." And there aren't many people the science genius boy truly trusts.

"Pick someone," Phil says, putting his coffee cup down. Plenty of time for her to have a look at the files, but she'll find Sally there for sure, along with Sloane Albright and several other noteworthy individuals. "I should check on Banner too, he always gives himself a hard time after a Code Green too." He exhales, switching gears, from Investigator Mode to…

Well. To Dad Mode.

"Thank you again for your own outstanding performance, and not just on that mission. I read the reports on the drone and robot attacks, along with the clown nonsense. You did a great job, I can't think of anything I'd have done differently in any of those circumstances."

"He sure does." Sharon doesn't go further into it. She's seen Banner in his guilt. It's a private thing, and one neither of them probably want to go over intensively.

"I did screw up," she says. "There were hostages in that ice cream van. If I'd caused it to crash, if I'd caused more damage, those people could have been badly hurt. I should have expected more explosives coming from Gotham." Because everything blows up in Gotham. And everything gets rebuilt in the same Gothic style. No accounting for tastes.

"But. Thank you. I really appreciate it. And I'm really glad for the chance to be your XO. With a solid team, one working as a team, as a unit, with full trust in each other, we can be more powerful than any menace you care to name."

"The thing about this job," Phil says, "is you have 2 seconds to make decisions. Things go wrong when you have two seconds to make decisions. Chaos is flying everywhere. You did the best you could with what you had to work with. We can't always stop people from getting hurt, and the truth is, you didn't cause more damage. It's good to do that after-mission evaluation to see what you could have done better…just don't let yourself beat yourself up."

He offers one of his more genuine smiles. He is, after all, about to go on 'stop beating yourself up' duty, with two men for whom it will be like ramming his head into the proverbial brick wall again…and again…and again…

Oh and also again.

"Taco Tuesday!" he says cheerfully, with the air of a promise. He'll see her then, if he doesn't see her before. He's striding out of the command centre as he crows it.

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